Report: Pollutants In The Wallkill River Exceed Safe Levels

Mar 28, 2017

Environmental group Riverkeeper has released a report on water quality in the Wallkill River that shows contamination levels throughout. The findings will be discussed Tuesday evening at the Wallkill River Summit at SUNY New Paltz. Meanwhile, Riverkeeper and another group have requested funding in New York’s budget for a state study of the Wallkill River.

Riverkeeper’s report is the result of working with community scientists in the Wallkill River Watershed for five years and monitoring water quality. Dan Shapley is Riverkeeper’s water quality program director. He says it’s not a pretty picture.

“What we see is that whether you look at the testing on a day-to-day basis or you average the results over time, you see the same picture, which is that the Wallkill River is really, seems to be suffering from a lot of contamination from sewage or other fecal contamination,” Shapley says. “And the concern there is that recreation on the river, swimming, bathing, child water play, things like that, would potentially be putting people at risk of getting ill, and that’s not what we want.”

The report showed that 87 percent of samples have failed to meet federal guidelines for safe swimming. And average levels of contamination are more than 10 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe swimming criterion. Jason West is executive director of the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance, which is hosting the third annual “Wallkill River Summit” at SUNY New Paltz.

“It’s going to deal with a suite of issues facing the Wallkill River and its watershed, ranging from the science of nutrient pollution to climate change to the Pilgrim Pipeline to what’s going on with the fisheries in the river,” says West.

Riverkeeper and the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz are sponsoring the summit. The Wallkill River is a major Hudson River tributary. It is nearly 100 miles long and flows through Orange and Ulster Counties. The alliance has documented harmful algal blooms on the river, including one last year that produced toxins and covered as much as 30 miles of the river with bright green algae for 60 days.

“What we’re trying to do now is establish exactly what’s in the river. Riverkeeper’s been testing the Wallkill for five years now looking for pathogens for bacteria and, as Dan says, it’s not a pretty picture on that front. But we’re just learning about nutrient pollution, the nitrogen and phosphorus that can lead to these algae blooms. And we’re trying to track down the sources of those pollutants,” West says.  “And we’re also working with the DEC to try to get a study funded by the governor and the state legislature to really examine full spectrum of what’s in the Wallkill River so we can get to work remediating it, get to work cleaning it up.”

West, along with Shapley recently penned a letter to legislative leaders and the governor to request that $800,000 be included in the budget for a two-year Department of Environmental Conservation “Enhanced Monitoring Study” of the Wallkill. Shapley says the DEC study, currently in draft form, would not only carry the weight of a state study, but be able to delve deeper.

“One thing it would do would be to involve stream gauges which would give you a sense of the pollution relative to the flow level so you would get a sense of the pollution load and where it’s coming from in different places. That’s a level of sophistication that we can’t do on a monthly basis,” says Shapley.  “It would also look for many more parameters than we are looking for.”

He emphasizes that both state and local level help are needed.

“People can get involved. People can make a difference,” Shapley says. “We’re fighting to really see this state study funded but, in the meantime, we can take a lot of actions at the local level and the individual level to make a difference.”

Riverkeeper’s report also found that the Wallkill is particularly affected by rain, showing the most profound worsening of water quality from rain-related contamination of any tributary studied by Riverkeeper to date. Shapley says this points to the need to reduce stormwater runoff in cities and villages, and on farms.

Riverkeeper also recently released a report detailing results of a water quality monitoring project with SUNY Cobleskill of the Mohawk River. The report highlights the need to invest in water infrastructure to stop sewage overflows and leaks.

The Wallkill River Summit begins at 5 p.m. in the Student Union Building at SUNY New Paltz.